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London JW3 Jewish Center Aims for Bit of American 'Exuberance'

London JW3 Jewish Center Aims for Bit of American 'Exuberance'

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Finchley Road, which stretches across London’s northern suburbs, is one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares. Day and night, cars crawl along it, passing supermarkets, furniture stores, a popular multiplex and, lately, a vast construction site for a new project now nearing completion.

What’s about to be unveiled here is broadcast loud and clear by the sign alongside the site. This is to be the home of “a new postcode for Jewish life,” the sign announces — the United Kingdom’s first Jewish Community Centre.

Known popularly as JW3 — a play on the well-known NW3 postal code in which it sits — the JCC takes up 35,000 square feet on four stories. Its opening, set for September 29, will mark a historic moment in British Jewry’s self-definition — and not just because British Jews will have a state-of-the-art, multidimensional cultural center. Unlike New York, where Jewishness seems almost an extension of the city’s identity, Anglo-Jewish life, up to now, has tended to be quieter and more understated.

But JW3, in the words of its outgoing chief executive, Nick Viner, who was in charge of the project’s development stage, is about giving Anglo-Jewry some of the “exuberance of our cousins across the Atlantic.”

For all the waves that Jews have made in Great Britain in entertainment, science and politics, Jewish communal institutions — synagogues, student centers and meeting places — remain broadly beyond the gaze of the wider population. This is partly for security, but it goes deeper. Perhaps as a legacy of Europe’s history, British Jews, as Jews, try to keep their heads down.

“One only has to study the British Jewish press throughout most of the 20th century to appreciate that Jewish leadership put a lot of energy into reminding Jews to be as British as possible,” said Raymond Simonson, the JCC’s new CEO. “I grew up understanding how English Jews mostly regarded U.S. Jews as a bit too loudly Jewish.”

Things have changed on that front lately. Nowadays there are public Hanukkah lightings, Israel rallies and yearly Jewish cultural festivals. But the opening of the JCC as a permanent fixture offering its cultural fare to all of London will mark a boost in the community’s profile by several orders of magnitude.

“It is fairly radical,” Simonson admitted. “I want JW3 to take Jewish life out of the history books and documentaries and exhibition cases, and offer it in full 3-D, surround sound, Technicolor.”

Some still question whether Jewish Londoners need another cultural venue, with the high-brow London Jewish Cultural Centre — which has decades of experience running a successful program — a few miles in one direction, and the thriving Jewish Museum a few miles in the other. With Jewish Book Week and UK Jewish Film, fundraising events, youth movement programs and synagogue-based educational courses, London Jewry already has a crammed calendar — for a community a fraction of the size of New York.

But until now, London has never seen a sprawling Jewish space that attempts to do everything, in the American style: film, dance, food, art, education, highbrow, lowbrow, kindergarten, office space and more, pitched to the affiliated and unaffiliated alike.

The seed for this historic departure from Jewish life in the British mode was planted a little more than a decade ago, when philanthropist Dame Vivien Duffield visited New York. Touring the JCC in Manhattan, on the borough’s Upper West Side, she realized that London had nothing to compare to it or to other institutions, like the 92nd Street Y.

On her return, she fought to convince British Jews that this should change, eventually bringing politicians and communal leaders round.

It wasn’t an easy sell. After the plans were unveiled, concerns about the project as it progressed were aired in the pages of the Jewish Chronicle, British Jewry’s newspaper of record.

“It’s a great idea,” enthused Andrew Gilbert, the chairman of Britain’s Reform movement as the project launched, in 2003. “But…my belief is that the Orthodox rabbinate in this country will destroy it. If it succeeds, it will have to fundamentally change the nature of cross-communal interaction in the community.”

A few years later, when the economic crisis led to a suspension of work on the project, Allan Morgenthau, then vice-president of the London Jewish Cultural Centre, commented, “A lot of donors feel that money is required for social services, which are under enormous pressure.”

But ten years and some $76 million of Duffield’s and other donors’ money later, such skepticism is, for now at least, in abeyance. Both supporters and those who have harbored doubts are waiting to see London’s response to the imminent unfolding of a strikingly rich inaugural program: 1,000 events over the first few months, bringing in art, drama, film and more.

Hollywood actor Kevin Spacey will be stopping by, as will Nicholas Hytner, director of the National Theatre, acclaimed author Edmund De Waal and myriad others. To attract those for whom participation comes via the stomach, there will be a kosher restaurant, helmed by chefs who previously worked for Yotam Ottolenghi, the Israeli-born master chef. “We will offer a chance to experience the very best of living Jewish arts, culture, learning, community and life,” Simonson said.

With a tree-lined piazza, a plush 60-seat screening room, an auditorium that converts into a function room, a kindergarten, a rehearsal space and offices, the London JCC is clearly different from anything the community has had before in scale and style — a reality evident to advance visitors on preview tours, even as construction workers in hard hats put together the finishing touches.

Duffield wants JW3 to become one of London’s key cultural landmarks for Jews and non-Jews alike. That includes especially “people who are Jewish but have forgotten,” she said at an invitation-only preview event in July. She expressed the hope that the center’s offerings will entice them to dip in again.

To encourage this, board members have been drawn from all backgrounds, including the historically unaffiliated. In a bid to challenge intra-communal divides, Duffield has also engaged as much with Orthodox leaders like Lord Jonathan Sacks, Great Britain’s outgoing chief rabbi, as with leaders of the more liberal Jewish streams, like Rabbi Julia Neuberger. There will be no religious services at JW3, enabling everyone, from the traditionally observant to those who are atheist, to take part.

Limmud, the annual festival of Jewish programs and learning that originated in the U.K., and to which some 2,500 U.K. Jews flocked last year, offers a model of the approach the London JCC will take, albeit in a permanent site, and all year round. It’s thus no coincidence that Simonson was recruited after serving as Limmud’s first full-time executive director, nor that other prime movers came via the organization – from the erstwhile creative director, Juliet Simmons (a onetime Limmud conference chair), to Clive Lawton, a board member and Limmud co-founder.

“I don’t think JW3 is really about uniting all shades of Jewish life, and don’t think it’s going to have a huge take-up from the Haredi communities,” said Richard Verber, co-chair of this year’s Limmud festival. “But with a kosher restaurant and sensitive Shabbat policy, it should be able to attract religious and secular Jews from mainstream Anglo-Jewry.”

Written by

Jennifer Lipman

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